book reviews / characters / marketing

7 Books to Understand Your Character’s Psychology

An efriend originally published this as a guest post to help me launch Against All Odds. In case you missed it there, here are books to help you write characters:

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Characters have to be believable. If not, readers put your book down. If your character is a mathematician, he has to think like one, act like one, dress like one. It’s not enough to tell us he works for the NSA analyzing data. You have to give him the quirks that make us believe this guy could save the world with his cerebellum.

If you’re not that guy, how do you convince readers? Traditional wisdom says two things:

  • interview people
  • watch people

Those are good–especially for your main characters. In fact, you probably can’t create a protagonist and antagonist without interviewing those who have walked in their footsteps. But what about the dozens of other characters who wander through a scene, playing bit but important parts in your plot? Here are some great books that will allow you to color them with a consistent brush:

  • Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores the Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals by John Douglas. If you write mysteries or thrillers, this book will help you explore what makes criminals who they are.
  • Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood. She explains how to write compelling fresh emotions for your characters. Much of this lies in the showing-not-telling truism; she explains how to show hostility, hate, etc., rather than saying the words. Similar to this one is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman
  • How Mathematicians Think by William Byers. Hint: They don’t think like us. I have a brilliant friend who–I kid you not–hates graphs because they distill the information for him. He’d prefer the raw data so he can see the connections. If you’re including someone like that in your plot, this book will make sure you include ambiguity, paradox and their other brilliance in your character’s thoughts and actions. Me, I used this book (and my brilliant friend) as a template for the character Eitan in my Rowe-Delamagente series.
  • The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat by Oliver Sachs. Any of his books will give you insight into creative, fascinating psychoses that people live with. In this particular book, a man can’t look at a person as a cohesive picture. All he sees are bits of red and pieces of animals–and in the case of his wife, a hat. She does always wears one so that he’ll recognize her. A character in the early stages of that psychoses might be a fascinating addition to your story
  • Please Understand Me I and II by David Keirsey. This is a personality style determinant. Very detailed, but highly relevant for analyzing your main characters’ temperament, character and intelligence.
  • The Writer’s Body Lexicon by Kathy Steinemann. If you want characters’ bodies to go beyond appearance to help you build tension, intrigue, and humor, this book tells you how with word choices and phrases for body parts organized under clear categories.
  • Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein. This includes profiles of human behaviors and personality types. That way, you can keep your character within the required parameters. It didn’t work for me but it might suit you fine.
  • Body language. There are so many great books and websites on this. I have many posts on descriptors and character traits that will get you started (see the right side of this blog). Don’t miss this detail. If your character doesn’t show those tells that every human on the planet does, s/he won’t be believable. No one speaks only with their mouth.

If you have favorite books on this subject, share with us. I’d love to hear about them!

#amwriting #IndieAuthor


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection, Winter 2022.

74 thoughts on “7 Books to Understand Your Character’s Psychology

  1. Jacqui, a terrific post! I’ve read the Oliver Sachs book so many times as well as many of his other works! As for the Emotion Thesaurus – I’m beginning to wonder how I could think of writing without a copy of this by my side! Off to look at getting it straight away!😀

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A great post, Jacqui, and something writers have to pay attention to if they want vivid characters. I use the Emotional Thesaurus a lot so that I can show a variety of body language in a story instead of characters smiling, shrugging, and frowning all the time. A degree in mental health helps too. Lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Jacqui – I’d love to read these (all of them) … and at some stage I should come back to find some of them … once I’ve read my TBR pile/s. They sound so so interesting … the mathematician one entices … and Oliver Sacks’ book, as too the Emotion Thesaurus. Brilliant post – thank you … cheers Hilary

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for the list of books to help develop characters. So interesting. I do use the Emotion Thesaurus a lot when I am in editing. It sparks my own thinking and surprises me with the description of the emotion as if the author saw me acting it out in front of her.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jacqui, your post is thoughtful and I can tell a lot of work lies behind. I totally agree with you that only by listening and understanding characters do they become real.
    I love watching people and see how they interact. The chance to find out more through actual conversation is great.
    Equally, it is important to immerse yourself in the place the book is taking place and understand what really is the glue, the importance.

    Thank you for your interesting and informative article.

    Miriam

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Listening and watching are highly underrated activities. When we watch more as observers, it’s amazing how much more we take in. The Emotion Thesaurus is one of my go-to resources, and I also own The Writer’s Body Lexicon as well as the other two books in Kathy’s series.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yes, to make characters believeable a writer must walk in the mind and body of the people in the story. I too like The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and all her books on writing. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/use-the-enneagram-to-write-better-characters/
    I like the use of enneagrams to get to the inner motivations of my characters. My life has been filled with people who have the characteristics of the enneagram or Thesaurus. Then I add more evil or lightness. What does your character want and how far will they go to get it?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dear Jacqui and Grace,

      I concur with both of you. Thank you, Jacqui, for providing the seven “Books to Understand Your Character’s Psychology”, and Grace, for introducing us to The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and all her books on writing.

      In return, I would like to offer you some of my tools, one of which is a comprehensive resource designed for writers, editors, publishers and reviewers who wish to systematically evaluate and determine the quality of a book or manuscript, whether it is written by themselves or others. It is available at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/manuscript/

      The said Manuscript Assessment Criteria page provides a complete checklist for writers to evaluate and inspect their own works (either by themselves or with a group of readers or editors) before submitting their manuscripts to publishers, and also during successive edits after the previous submission(s) and before the next submission.

      Please enjoy the resource to your heart’s content. You are very welcome to submit your feedback in the comment section there, should you think of something for me to include in the Manuscript Assessment Criteria, or if you have something to say about it.

      Wishing you a productive week doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most!

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks for the inspiring list to add emotions and realism to characters! I found The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Richard Riso and Russ Hudson useful to show readers how characters’ behavioral traits shift as they move from feeling secure to stressed. To see how this works, search for “Develop Characters Using Enneagram Personality Types” with the Duck Duck Go search engine.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Dear Jacqui,
    the books of Desmond Morris might help and there is a French pantomime whose name I have forgotten. On the other hand Brecht’s theoretical writings about the theatre and the literature about the Commedia dell’arte.
    All the best. Have a great weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • I remember dating an actor when I was young and he dragged me to lots of parties because his actor friends wanted another person to analyze. Took me a while to figure out that’s what was going on. But, what a great way to find out about people. Since I’m not a party person, I have to read books!

      Liked by 2 people

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